Gender prescription is something that gets set in stone at such an early age. Before girls know they’re girls or boys know that they’re slightly dumber/whinier versions of girls, each of the sexes are being sent a heap of subtle messages to direct their social behavior.
My earliest realization of how powerful of a tool the invisible hand of assigned gender roles can be came when I was still in kindergarten. It all started with the acquisition of a new friend, an event that was unceremoniously easier to handle as a five-year-old. Essentially I asked a random classmate if he wanted to be friends. He agreed and then we were friends. It’s something that doesn’t work well as an adult. Asking the companionship of strangers when you’re taller than two feet generally leads to jail time or molestation. Or both.
What mattered at the time, however, was that I had a new friend. Later on that same day, my new friend and I were playing X-Men with a few other classmates. In case you’ve never played X-Men, the game is quite simple and goes as such: you pick your favorite X-Men character and pretend to be that character. It was very fun.
I, like always, picked Wolverine (anyone who knows anything about Marvel comics understands why). My classmates sounded off their picks one after another, each slipping the slightest of sighs for not being hasty enough to pick Wolverine first. When my new friend had his chance to pick, he took an unheard of approach to character selection. “I’ll be Storm,” he calmly explained, as though it was the norm for him to pick a female character.
I was perplexed and offered an answer to a question he had not posed, “There are still plenty of other boy characters to pick,” I explained. “You don’t have to be Storm.”
“I’m Storm!” he snapped, offended by my assertion.
I was stunned. How could a boy pretend to be a girl? It wasn’t an idea that had been presented during my five years of life. Every guided message of masculinity constructed by those around me (friends, family, media) had began to shape what my idea of a being a boy meant. Being allowed to play as Storm had not been one of those messages.
As shaking as this was to my schema of manhood, it was a rather freeing idea. No longer would I have to adhere to the arbitrary rules of pretend time that limited my imagination and creativity. Despite the world wanting to fashion me into a particular projection, I now had the power to resist the influence. If I wanted to, I could pretend I was Storm. Of course, kindergarten version of me was only able to process and express this information as, “I can be girls, too? Neat!”
When I got home later that day, I was forced into another game of X-Men. My older brother, five years my senior, wanted to run about the yard, fighting off sentinels. He, being older and more mature, snatched the role of Wolverine and played it to a degree of seriousness that I could barely fathom (popsicle sticks between his fingers and all, a real method actor).
It was my turn to pick a character and my favorite was already spoken for. As such, I utilized the lesson of the day and said, “I’ll be Rogue.”
My brother stared at me. I looked into his eyes. Something was stirring in his mind, analyzing and interpreting the situation. Had I, like my friend had for me, set my brother free of the powerful shackles of early socialization? Had my brother realized that, if he so pleased, it was perfectly normal for him to pretend he was Storm?
What was most likely seconds had felt like an eternity as my brother opened his mouth to respond. I expected a ‘thank you’ on top of what had to be a better articulation of appreciation than I was able to construct or understand as he had the more complex language skills between the two of us.
Then my brother punched my shoulder as he hissed, “Faggot.”
I picked Nightcrawler.